'Gilo construction could derail Quartet's peace initiative'

EU, US diplomats warn against government approval for housing in east Jerusalem neighborhood.

Netanyahu Merkel 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu Merkel 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Quartet’s new initiative to relaunch peace talks could be threatened by initial plans to build 1,100 housing units in the Jewish east Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, European and United States diplomats told Israel over Rosh Hashana.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that she “lacked any comprehension for the approval of new construction plans for Gilo near Jerusalem, just days after the Quartet declaration [calling for a new peace plan] had been passed,” according to a statement put on Friday by the German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.
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The advancement of the Gilo housing plans “raised doubts over whether the Israeli government was interested in the resumption of serious negotiations, Merkel told Netanyahu. “What now counted was to dispel such doubts,” according to the statement.
Announcement of the Gilo plans last week came in amid a new push by the Quartet to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table with Israel within 30 days, so the two sides can reach a finalstatus agreement within 15 months, by December 2012.
During their phone conversation, Merkel urged the prime minister to refrain from provocative action and to resume negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahamoud Abbas on the basis of the new Quartet plan.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini, said on Saturday that the new Quartet initiative had failed to relaunch negotiations, according to media reports.
They called on both sides to begin talks.
Juppe criticized the Gilo construction and added that it gave the Palestinians an excuse not to accept the initiative, according to the reports.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Quartet plan was “counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.”
“As you know, we have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including, and perhaps most particularly in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side,” Clinton said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Wednesday echoed Clinton’s words when she told reporters that such plans were “counterproductive.”
Nuland added that Israel’s ambassador to the US Michael Oren had discussed the Gilo construction with US officials.
Israeli officials said that since then there had been a certain amount of diplomatic traffic on this issue.
In a pre-Rosh Hashana interview with The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu defended the Gilo construction, saying that the US was aware of the plans and that there was nothing new in Jewish building in the capital.
“We plan in Jerusalem. We build in Jerusalem. Period. The same way Israeli governments have been doing for 44 years, since the end of the 1967 war. We build in Jewish neighborhoods, the Arabs build in Arab neighborhoods, that is the way the life of this city goes on and develops for its Jewish and non- Jewish residents alike,” the prime minister said.
On Saturday night, his spokesman Mark Regev expanded on Netanyahu’s words to the Post.
“Gilo is not a settlement and it is definitely not an outpost. It is a Jerusalem neighborhood that is 10 minutes away from the center of the city,” Regev said.
Every peace plan put forward for the past 18 years, including the Clinton parameters of 2000 and the Geneva Initiative, has stated that Gilo will remain part of Israel in a final-status agreement,” he said.
“Every Israeli government since 1967 has built in the Jewish neighborhoods of [east] Jerusalem.”
So advancing plans for additional construction in Gilo does not reflect a change in policy, Regev added. “There is no contradiction between this preliminary planning decision and our desire to move forward to a two-state solution for two peoples,” he said.
The Palestinian have said that they will not negotiate with Israel until it halts Jewish construction in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem. Israel has said that will to talks at any time, without any conditions, and has urged the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
Netanyahu has said he favors the Quartet proposal but that he won’t issue a formal statement until he has finished consulting with his senior ministers.
He convened the inner cabinet of eight ministers on Tuesday evening to discuss the Quartet’s proposal, and plans to hold an additional meeting with them.
No formal statement has yet been issued on the matter.
Although diplomatic officials have said that the Palestinians rejected the proposal, the PA on Saturday said that it wanted clarification and has not dismissed the matter.
PA officials said over the weekend that while the proposal contained “encouraging elements,” they want the Quartet members – the US, EU, UN and Russia – to provide further clarifications regarding the “terms of reference” for the peace process and the issue of construction in the settlements.
The Israeli and Palestinian consultations regarding the Quartet proposal come as the Palestinians have sought to bypass talks by seeking unilateral recognition of statehood through the United Nations.
Last month, they submitted their request to become a member state of the UN to the Security Council.
The council’s review panel met on Friday to consider that bid.
The Palestinians needs nine votes in the 15-member Security Council.
The US has said that it would veto the membership request should it pass the council, but that it would prefer to see enough countries vote against the measure, or to abstain, to make a veto unnecessary.
The government has assumed that France, Germany, Bosnia, Columbia and Portugal would not support the Palestinian bid for UN membership, or at the very least, that they would abstain from the vote. Bosnia, Gabon and Nigeria are considered to be swing votes. The Palestinians have counted China in their corner even though it told the UN General Assembly last week that it supported a negotiated solution to the conflict.
At a press conference with Clinton on Tuesday in Washington, Portuguese Foreign Minister Paulo Portas said, “This is my scenario: Negotiations to solve everything that must be solved. So I think it is the chance of a negotiation, and the chance is given by United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia, who are the members of the Quartet, who are the key story in this moment.”